Thursday, December 30, 2010

Are you a paycheck player?

I was watching Jerry Maguire on TV for the millionth time recently. It's a great movie with instantly-quotable dialogue (that sort of stuff is HARD to write, so respect, Mr. Crowe). Not to mention, Tom Cruise gives probably the best performance he's ever going to produce.

Anyway, there's a bit where dissatisfied football player Ron Tidwell is moaning, as is his wont, to his agent Maguire. Why aren't the press interested in talking to him? Where's his ten million dollar deal? And Jerry Maguire finally cracks and lets him have it, like so:

"Here's why you don't have your ten million dollars yet. You are a paycheck player. You play with your head. Not your heart. In your personal life? Heart. But when you get on the field - you're a businessman. It's wide-angle lenses and who fucked you over and who owes you for it. That's not what inspires people. I'm sorry, but that's the truth, can you handle it?"

And my point of all this is, can we all handle it? It's very easy to get up in the morning and go to work and collect a salary at the end of the month and not give a damn along the way. Many, many people do a job they dislike or don't care about, because it pays well.

It's also very easy to carry out a task with no enthusiasm, with your eyes only on some eventual pot of gold. Are you writing because you want to make a million dollars from your script or novel? Here's the thing - you are less likely to write a hit if you're only thinking of the moolah! Your lack of passion will show, and sooner or later, it will start to bite. And even if you do hit the jackpot, will the victory be as sweet?

Here's my New Year's resolution and my advice to anyone out there: whatever you do, do it with passion. Give it your all and the results will surprise even you....

Are you a paycheck player?

I was watching Jerry Maguire on TV for the millionth time recently. It's a great movie with instantly-quotable dialogue (that sort of stuff is HARD to write, so respect, Mr. Crowe). Not to mention, Tom Cruise gives probably the best performance he's ever going to produce.

Anyway, there's a bit where dissatisfied football player Ron Tidwell is moaning, as is his wont, to his agent Maguire. Why aren't the press interested in talking to him? Where's his ten million dollar deal? And Jerry Maguire finally cracks and lets him have it, like so:

"Here's why you don't have your ten million dollars yet. You are a paycheck player. You play with your head. Not your heart. In your personal life? Heart. But when you get on the field - you're a businessman. It's wide-angle lenses and who fucked you over and who owes you for it. That's not what inspires people. I'm sorry, but that's the truth, can you handle it?"

And my point of all this is, can we all handle it? It's very easy to get up in the morning and go to work and collect a salary at the end of the month and not give a damn along the way. Many, many people do a job they dislike or don't care about, because it pays well.

It's also very easy to carry out a task with no enthusiasm, with your eyes only on some eventual pot of gold. Are you writing because you want to make a million dollars from your script or novel? Here's the thing - you are less likely to write a hit if you're only thinking of the moolah! Your lack of passion will show, and sooner or later, it will start to bite. And even if you do hit the jackpot, will the victory be as sweet?

Here's my New Year's resolution and my advice to anyone out there: whatever you do, do it with passion. Give it your all and the results will surprise even you....

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Black List is back! And as ever, so are cliches...

It's been 11 days since the last post, which I can explain in two words that far too many people haven't seen in a long time. New job.

But I'm back, it's Friday night and it feels good! First up, the inspiration/motivation powerhouse that is the Black List. The Times ran an article on the 2010 list today and the script I'm most excited about reading by a long shot is All You Need Is Kill by Dante Harper.

Based on a Japanese novel about a guy who finds himself reliving his own battlefield death in a Groundhog Day-style loop, this sounds like a great concept. It also sold for $3m to Warners Bros, the only spec script I've heard of in a long time to generate that kind of money. Now I just hope the script is as good as it sounds.

On another note, because it's Christmas and because it's fun, I was thinking about genre cliches. I was watching Unstoppable recently and as Denzel Washington climbed up onto the roof of the speeding, out-of-control train, my viewing companion said confidently, "He's going to fall off and hang on the side for a while". We both watched as Denzel proceeded to run down the train with no problem whatever. Spoiler alert - he does not fall. Not even a jolt in that direction.
And you know what? I felt a bit cheated! Train movies always have someone fall off and hang on the side, usually while battling a bad guy, and then they usually manage to heroically heave themselves back up. Damn you, Denzel and your surefootedness!

Here are just some of the cliches I can think of, by genre:

Horror

There are almost too many cliches in this genre to mention, but here are a few:
  • People hanging around in dark places by themselves.
  • Groups pointlessly splitting up in sinister locations.
  • Houseowners refusing to move despite evidence that the house is evil/haunted/possessed.
  • Blondes of both sexes getting butchered. It's blonde genocide in horrors!
  • Towns/communities having deep dark secrets that they never reveal to the hero until it's almost too late. Usually when at least 15 people have died.
  • Authority figures are always bad/useless/a hindrance
  • People engaging in personal grooming at stupid times. I'm talking about a guy taking a shower when a serial killer is picking off his friends one by one or a girl deciding to shave her legs when there's a killer virus making everyone vomit blood (Cabin Fever, I'm looking at you).

Action

Again, an embarrassment of riches:

  • Random stuff blowing up, but in particular oil barrels being placed for no good reason all over the place.
  • Car chases, usually on a busy freeway, at rush hour.
  • A very dumb hero. And a very bright villain.
  • Millions of bullets being fired, most of which fail to hit anything.
  • Bad guys having serious problems attracting good henchmen. Most of the henchmenget dispatched with no problem at all, the only exception being huge Germans/Russians or Asian guys with mad skills.
  • Girls taking their kit off, even if it doesn't fit their character's profession, personality, etc etc.

Thriller

  • Long, winding coastal roads.
  • Huge, modernistic houses, probably in San Francisco.
  • A messed-up hero.
  • Mysterious phone calls involving codes.
  • No sleep for any of the protagonists - thriller characters are nocturnal.
  • Terse dialogue and open-ended conversations.
  • A horrible secret that we - and the protagonist - just HAVE to discover.

Romantic Comedies

  • The heroine has to fall over at least three times. Knocking things/people over as she goes is also mandatory.
  • The hero and heroine will each have a less attractive friend who is nonetheless far more interesting than them. This happens in musicals too - Ado Annie is a way better character to play in Oklahoma for example than the female lead (see, can't even remember her name).
  • Misunderstandings and missed opportunities.
  • Comic set-pieces that result in the heroine getting humiliated, again.
  • A man the female lead should marry, if he wasn't so boring/corporate/such a mensch.
  • A run to the finish, usually involving the hero/heroine's entire family/circleof friends.
  • A girl-power song over the closing credits.

There's loads I've missed - bring 'em on!

The Black List is back! And as ever, so are cliches...

It's been 11 days since the last post, which I can explain in two words that far too many people haven't seen in a long time. New job.

But I'm back, it's Friday night and it feels good! First up, the inspiration/motivation powerhouse that is the Black List. The Times ran an article on the 2010 list today and the script I'm most excited about reading by a long shot is All You Need Is Kill by Dante Harper.

Based on a Japanese novel about a guy who finds himself reliving his own battlefield death in a Groundhog Day-style loop, this sounds like a great concept. It also sold for $3m to Warners Bros, the only spec script I've heard of in a long time to generate that kind of money. Now I just hope the script is as good as it sounds.

On another note, because it's Christmas and because it's fun, I was thinking about genre cliches. I was watching Unstoppable recently and as Denzel Washington climbed up onto the roof of the speeding, out-of-control train, my viewing companion said confidently, "He's going to fall off and hang on the side for a while". We both watched as Denzel proceeded to run down the train with no problem whatever. Spoiler alert - he does not fall. Not even a jolt in that direction.
And you know what? I felt a bit cheated! Train movies always have someone fall off and hang on the side, usually while battling a bad guy, and then they usually manage to heroically heave themselves back up. Damn you, Denzel and your surefootedness!

Here are just some of the cliches I can think of, by genre:

Horror

There are almost too many cliches in this genre to mention, but here are a few:
  • People hanging around in dark places by themselves.
  • Groups pointlessly splitting up in sinister locations.
  • Houseowners refusing to move despite evidence that the house is evil/haunted/possessed.
  • Blondes of both sexes getting butchered. It's blonde genocide in horrors!
  • Towns/communities having deep dark secrets that they never reveal to the hero until it's almost too late. Usually when at least 15 people have died.
  • Authority figures are always bad/useless/a hindrance
  • People engaging in personal grooming at stupid times. I'm talking about a guy taking a shower when a serial killer is picking off his friends one by one or a girl deciding to shave her legs when there's a killer virus making everyone vomit blood (Cabin Fever, I'm looking at you).

Action

Again, an embarrassment of riches:

  • Random stuff blowing up, but in particular oil barrels being placed for no good reason all over the place.
  • Car chases, usually on a busy freeway, at rush hour.
  • A very dumb hero. And a very bright villain.
  • Millions of bullets being fired, most of which fail to hit anything.
  • Bad guys having serious problems attracting good henchmen. Most of the henchmenget dispatched with no problem at all, the only exception being huge Germans/Russians or Asian guys with mad skills.
  • Girls taking their kit off, even if it doesn't fit their character's profession, personality, etc etc.

Thriller

  • Long, winding coastal roads.
  • Huge, modernistic houses, probably in San Francisco.
  • A messed-up hero.
  • Mysterious phone calls involving codes.
  • No sleep for any of the protagonists - thriller characters are nocturnal.
  • Terse dialogue and open-ended conversations.
  • A horrible secret that we - and the protagonist - just HAVE to discover.

Romantic Comedies

  • The heroine has to fall over at least three times. Knocking things/people over as she goes is also mandatory.
  • The hero and heroine will each have a less attractive friend who is nonetheless far more interesting than them. This happens in musicals too - Ado Annie is a way better character to play in Oklahoma for example than the female lead (see, can't even remember her name).
  • Misunderstandings and missed opportunities.
  • Comic set-pieces that result in the heroine getting humiliated, again.
  • A man the female lead should marry, if he wasn't so boring/corporate/such a mensch.
  • A run to the finish, usually involving the hero/heroine's entire family/circleof friends.
  • A girl-power song over the closing credits.

There's loads I've missed - bring 'em on!

Monday, December 6, 2010

You better know yourself, little girl!

I hate to come across all "Aisleyne from Big Brother", but the snarling ghetto girl was right about one thing. Apart from the fact that Nikki was a poisonous munchkin, that is.

If you're going to get ahead, you have to know yourself inside out. If you don't, how will anyone else? And more importantly, how will you improve?

This can be related to anything, but with writing it's absolutely crucial that you know all your own strengths and weaknesses. Where do you excel, and where do the notes you're getting back keep finding fault?

I'm going to bare what I think are my own ones: overwriting description, not having terse enough action. My dialogue can be funny but it's not punchy, laugh-out-loud stuff. And Act 2 can be a very dodgy place.

And the good stuff: my scripts have good structure. I'm good at coming up with ideas and at thinking of ways to fix things in rewrites. Actually, I quite enjoy doing rewrites, in a perverse way.

So how do you fix your writing sins once you identify them? Three ways. Having problems writing comedy dialogue? Watch some very funny films, and then read the scripts for good measure. Overwriting description is harder to fix; you just have to go over your script and keep asking yourself if every line is necessary. For overall troubleshooting, get your script read, either by a pro reader or by a fellow writer. They'll notice things you've missed, and they'll be more objective than you can hope to be.

Remember, a bad writing habit identified is one that's one step closer to being fixed...


You better know yourself, little girl!

I hate to come across all "Aisleyne from Big Brother", but the snarling ghetto girl was right about one thing. Apart from the fact that Nikki was a poisonous munchkin, that is.

If you're going to get ahead, you have to know yourself inside out. If you don't, how will anyone else? And more importantly, how will you improve?

This can be related to anything, but with writing it's absolutely crucial that you know all your own strengths and weaknesses. Where do you excel, and where do the notes you're getting back keep finding fault?

I'm going to bare what I think are my own ones: overwriting description, not having terse enough action. My dialogue can be funny but it's not punchy, laugh-out-loud stuff. And Act 2 can be a very dodgy place.

And the good stuff: my scripts have good structure. I'm good at coming up with ideas and at thinking of ways to fix things in rewrites. Actually, I quite enjoy doing rewrites, in a perverse way.

So how do you fix your writing sins once you identify them? Three ways. Having problems writing comedy dialogue? Watch some very funny films, and then read the scripts for good measure. Overwriting description is harder to fix; you just have to go over your script and keep asking yourself if every line is necessary. For overall troubleshooting, get your script read, either by a pro reader or by a fellow writer. They'll notice things you've missed, and they'll be more objective than you can hope to be.

Remember, a bad writing habit identified is one that's one step closer to being fixed...


Friday, December 3, 2010

Winter Wonderland...

It's white, it's pretty and it just hates all forms of transport. With snow on everyone's brain, and with (to be honest) a lot more time on my hands than usual, I started thinking about movies with snow. There are lots of them, but which are the snowiest of them all?

Here's my top 5 icy marvels:

Number One (this is a tribute to Phil) has to be Empire Strikes Back. The planet Hoth and its snowstorms, Han Solo's attempts to rescue Luke from the Wampa, I feel cold just looking at it. In a good way.

Number Two - Fargo. Probably the greatest crime-comedy ever set in freezing Minnesota, the Coens brought us breathtaking scenery, great villains and the triumph that is Marge Gunderson. She's pregnant and operating as a cop in bonechilling weather. Respect.

Number Three - The Shining is a serious contender for the top spot. Never has snow seemed so much like a character in itself. It permeates the hotel that Jack Torrance and his family find themselves stuck in and adds a real sense of menace to what's already a terrifying movie. The maze scene alone is a masterpiece of horror.

Number Four - Home Alone. Another film where the snow plays a part, this time for laughs. My mom practically rolls on the floor laughing whenever the bit with Joe Pesci trying to make it up a frozen set of steps comes on. And the pesky snow is one of the main obstacles to Kevin's mother making it back to rescue him. Tsk....

Number Five - On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Definitely the snowiest Bond movie by a mile, OHMSS is covered in the stuff, with Blofeld making a lair out of a ski lodge that's REALLY inconvenient to get to. Amazing skiing sequences and the final shootout in the snowbound mountains is really well staged.

Check 'em out - but make sure you're sitting near a fire! Anyone got a great snow film I've missed?

Winter Wonderland...

It's white, it's pretty and it just hates all forms of transport. With snow on everyone's brain, and with (to be honest) a lot more time on my hands than usual, I started thinking about movies with snow. There are lots of them, but which are the snowiest of them all?

Here's my top 5 icy marvels:

Number One (this is a tribute to Phil) has to be Empire Strikes Back. The planet Hoth and its snowstorms, Han Solo's attempts to rescue Luke from the Wampa, I feel cold just looking at it. In a good way.

Number Two - Fargo. Probably the greatest crime-comedy ever set in freezing Minnesota, the Coens brought us breathtaking scenery, great villains and the triumph that is Marge Gunderson. She's pregnant and operating as a cop in bonechilling weather. Respect.

Number Three - The Shining is a serious contender for the top spot. Never has snow seemed so much like a character in itself. It permeates the hotel that Jack Torrance and his family find themselves stuck in and adds a real sense of menace to what's already a terrifying movie. The maze scene alone is a masterpiece of horror.

Number Four - Home Alone. Another film where the snow plays a part, this time for laughs. My mom practically rolls on the floor laughing whenever the bit with Joe Pesci trying to make it up a frozen set of steps comes on. And the pesky snow is one of the main obstacles to Kevin's mother making it back to rescue him. Tsk....

Number Five - On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Definitely the snowiest Bond movie by a mile, OHMSS is covered in the stuff, with Blofeld making a lair out of a ski lodge that's REALLY inconvenient to get to. Amazing skiing sequences and the final shootout in the snowbound mountains is really well staged.

Check 'em out - but make sure you're sitting near a fire! Anyone got a great snow film I've missed?

Friday, November 26, 2010

Do you know when to stop?

There's story I heard once about someone who went to an exhibition of primary school art. One class of tots had very impressive paintings displayed - they were naive but amazingly effective.

The guy remarked to the friend who had invited him that the teacher of this class must be really gifted to get this kind of work from such small kids. The friend replied, "No, she just knows when to take the pictures away from them".

This truism can be related to almost anything. Do you know you've had enough to eat, when you've worked enough on a presentation, when you've hung enough pictures on your living room wall? There's a fine line in most projects between something being done and it being overdone.

And screenwriting is no exception. There's usually a moment in most writing group sessions when the person whose work is being read has had enough feedback. If they get any more, people will start making mad suggestions and frying the victim's brain ("maybe the main character should be an alien?" That kind of thing).

And there's usually a point for most scripts where it's been tweaked and rewritten enough, where any further efforts will disimprove it, flick a bit too forward on the dial and tip your work towards a producer's waste paper basket. And sometimes you can't see that point until it's happened.

You have to be vigilant, to know when your screenplay is working and when it isn't. You have to know more than anyone else... when to stop.

Do you know when to stop?

There's story I heard once about someone who went to an exhibition of primary school art. One class of tots had very impressive paintings displayed - they were naive but amazingly effective.

The guy remarked to the friend who had invited him that the teacher of this class must be really gifted to get this kind of work from such small kids. The friend replied, "No, she just knows when to take the pictures away from them".

This truism can be related to almost anything. Do you know you've had enough to eat, when you've worked enough on a presentation, when you've hung enough pictures on your living room wall? There's a fine line in most projects between something being done and it being overdone.

And screenwriting is no exception. There's usually a moment in most writing group sessions when the person whose work is being read has had enough feedback. If they get any more, people will start making mad suggestions and frying the victim's brain ("maybe the main character should be an alien?" That kind of thing).

And there's usually a point for most scripts where it's been tweaked and rewritten enough, where any further efforts will disimprove it, flick a bit too forward on the dial and tip your work towards a producer's waste paper basket. And sometimes you can't see that point until it's happened.

You have to be vigilant, to know when your screenplay is working and when it isn't. You have to know more than anyone else... when to stop.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Who's rewriting my script?

The topic on every screenwriter’s lips at the moment seems to be the Amazon Studios weird screenwriting contest/crowd-sourced work/publicity stunt hybrid.

John August has already weighed in on this on his blog, as has Craig Mazin and Michael Ferris at Script Magazine. Between them they’ve covered everything – the strange overall idea, the 18-month lockdown on selling your script to anyone else, the idea that someone you don’t know, online, is going to be in a position to rewrite your stuff. Maybe badly.

That last bit is the bit that really makes me feel queasy. I mean, I’m not naïve, I know stuff gets rewritten. But at least when a studio hires another writer, there is at least some chance that you will know that other writer. Like, know their real name. It won’t be Spankypants88 rewriting your baby, it’ll be some journeyman screenwriter having another pass at it. And you might actually get paid properly, in some transparent manner.

There’s a lot that stinks about the whole deal that Mssrs. August, Mazin and Ferriss have already outlined. So my only other comment on it is that it’s a shame Amazon decided to go this way. They obviously want to break into the industry in some way and they obviously have money to spend. So why not run a proper screenwriting contest or scholarship programme instead of this cheap and nasty piece of screenwriter-baiting?

Well, there is one end result of the whole thing and it’s called column inches. Maybe no publicity is bad publicity?

In other news: rewriting. God, I hate and love it at the same time.

I’m in the process of a big “throw out the bath water and hope the baby hasn’t gone with it” job at the moment and one thing I will say: it hurts but sometimes you have to try something radical to save your script. Don’t be afraid to start again, or feel like you’re starting again. Maybe it’ll be better, maybe it won’t. But at least you can say you’ve tried everything – and there’s always the original draft to go back to!

Who's rewriting my script?

The topic on every screenwriter’s lips at the moment seems to be the Amazon Studios weird screenwriting contest/crowd-sourced work/publicity stunt hybrid.

John August has already weighed in on this on his blog, as has Craig Mazin and Michael Ferris at Script Magazine. Between them they’ve covered everything – the strange overall idea, the 18-month lockdown on selling your script to anyone else, the idea that someone you don’t know, online, is going to be in a position to rewrite your stuff. Maybe badly.

That last bit is the bit that really makes me feel queasy. I mean, I’m not naïve, I know stuff gets rewritten. But at least when a studio hires another writer, there is at least some chance that you will know that other writer. Like, know their real name. It won’t be Spankypants88 rewriting your baby, it’ll be some journeyman screenwriter having another pass at it. And you might actually get paid properly, in some transparent manner.

There’s a lot that stinks about the whole deal that Mssrs. August, Mazin and Ferriss have already outlined. So my only other comment on it is that it’s a shame Amazon decided to go this way. They obviously want to break into the industry in some way and they obviously have money to spend. So why not run a proper screenwriting contest or scholarship programme instead of this cheap and nasty piece of screenwriter-baiting?

Well, there is one end result of the whole thing and it’s called column inches. Maybe no publicity is bad publicity?

In other news: rewriting. God, I hate and love it at the same time.

I’m in the process of a big “throw out the bath water and hope the baby hasn’t gone with it” job at the moment and one thing I will say: it hurts but sometimes you have to try something radical to save your script. Don’t be afraid to start again, or feel like you’re starting again. Maybe it’ll be better, maybe it won’t. But at least you can say you’ve tried everything – and there’s always the original draft to go back to!

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Truth? You can't handle... you know...

So here we are. If we were a company, there'd be an examiner appointed and pink slips all round. But instead we're a country, so we're just going to have to live through it instead. There's a lot of depression about and a lot of "feck it, let's get pissed".

The Spanner reckons Brian C should take us all to Tenerife with the IMF money. But maybe he should take us all to the cinema instead? A good comedy, that's what we all need.

And it's all a reminder of what we're really about here (in the movie industry, I mean). Selling distraction from everyday life, from the newspapers with our leader's deflated face plastered all over 'em. From the news stories which are really, really fucking grim.

Go to a film, forget all that for a few hours. Watch something fun/entertaining/thought provoking.

So enough of that, and onto something very big in everyone's minds right now: telling the truth. Every script has a truth, but does its writer know what it is? Are you telling your script's true story, giving us its true voice? Can you, in fact, handle its truth?

I don't know about you, but I've had the thing where I've woken up with a start and thought "Yes! That's the truth! That's it!" Maybe I'm mental.

Here's my top five list for uncovering the truth about your screenplay (Brian, take note):
1. What is it about? What's it REALLY about? Write down one word that encapsulates this.
2. Who is the main character? (This is not necessarily the person who changes the most).
3. What do they want? (This has to ring true in everyone's mind, not least yours).
4. What's the natural truth of the story? What's its natural direction? Are you sticking to this or veering off on some false path?
5. Is the ending true, or does it feel tacked on? If so, ditch it and uncover the true ending!

Remember folks, stay strong, watch movies. That's all there is.

The Truth? You can't handle... you know...

So here we are. If we were a company, there'd be an examiner appointed and pink slips all round. But instead we're a country, so we're just going to have to live through it instead. There's a lot of depression about and a lot of "feck it, let's get pissed".

The Spanner reckons Brian C should take us all to Tenerife with the IMF money. But maybe he should take us all to the cinema instead? A good comedy, that's what we all need.

And it's all a reminder of what we're really about here (in the movie industry, I mean). Selling distraction from everyday life, from the newspapers with our leader's deflated face plastered all over 'em. From the news stories which are really, really fucking grim.

Go to a film, forget all that for a few hours. Watch something fun/entertaining/thought provoking.

So enough of that, and onto something very big in everyone's minds right now: telling the truth. Every script has a truth, but does its writer know what it is? Are you telling your script's true story, giving us its true voice? Can you, in fact, handle its truth?

I don't know about you, but I've had the thing where I've woken up with a start and thought "Yes! That's the truth! That's it!" Maybe I'm mental.

Here's my top five list for uncovering the truth about your screenplay (Brian, take note):
1. What is it about? What's it REALLY about? Write down one word that encapsulates this.
2. Who is the main character? (This is not necessarily the person who changes the most).
3. What do they want? (This has to ring true in everyone's mind, not least yours).
4. What's the natural truth of the story? What's its natural direction? Are you sticking to this or veering off on some false path?
5. Is the ending true, or does it feel tacked on? If so, ditch it and uncover the true ending!

Remember folks, stay strong, watch movies. That's all there is.

Friday, November 12, 2010

How to make development execs hate you...

My screenwriting group had a visit from two development execs last night and they talked us through their company's development process. It was a really helpful session and I'd recommend it to anyone else in a writing group. Apart from anything else, it blew away any preconceptions we might have had about development execs being faceless suits. Not so. They were very nice and approachable.

Among the useful info we gathered was a list of things that writers do to annoy production companies. So here they are - don't be the numbskull that commits any of these crimes, especially the first one...

  • Writers emailing their stuff to multiple people in multiple production companies and not using bcc. Doh!
  • Being fake and telling them they love the company’s stuff when they haven’t seen it/hated it.
  • Not formatting scripts properly.
  • Hassling them with phone calls or generally being weird.
  • Stating that the script is perfect and that there’s nothing that can be changed (leaving them nothing to work with, basically).
  • Being overly precious about their script.
  • Not being passionate enough about their script. If you don't love your script, who will?

How to make development execs hate you...

My screenwriting group had a visit from two development execs last night and they talked us through their company's development process. It was a really helpful session and I'd recommend it to anyone else in a writing group. Apart from anything else, it blew away any preconceptions we might have had about development execs being faceless suits. Not so. They were very nice and approachable.

Among the useful info we gathered was a list of things that writers do to annoy production companies. So here they are - don't be the numbskull that commits any of these crimes, especially the first one...

  • Writers emailing their stuff to multiple people in multiple production companies and not using bcc. Doh!
  • Being fake and telling them they love the company’s stuff when they haven’t seen it/hated it.
  • Not formatting scripts properly.
  • Hassling them with phone calls or generally being weird.
  • Stating that the script is perfect and that there’s nothing that can be changed (leaving them nothing to work with, basically).
  • Being overly precious about their script.
  • Not being passionate enough about their script. If you don't love your script, who will?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Why your villain must fit your story...

I'm reading the late Blake Syder's wondrous third Save The Cat book (called Save The Cat Strikes Back, naturally). It's probably the best of his books in that it deals with the thorny subject of rewrites. Now, I have no problem writing a draft, but rewrites fill me with dread, so his advice in this one is great. If you're in a complete rewrite hell, Cat 3 will get you out of it.

Now that my unpaid informercial is over... He talks at one point about how a movie character's punishment must fit both their crime and the tone of the film they're in. For instance, in Pretty Woman, Jason Alexander's character tries to assualt Julia Roberts near the end, out of jealousy and because of the (correct) assumption that she has ruined his business deal with Richard Gere. His punishment for this is to be punched by Gere and ostracised professionally by his biggest client. Snyder asks if this is enough. He has just tried to rape someone, right? Shouldn't they have reported him?

Well in the context of this movie and this story, the book concludes that what happens to him represents justice. Okay, in an action movie, Gere and Alexander would have had a big fight and Jason probably would have been thrown to his death out a window or something. In a thriller, there would have been a tense chase scene, resulting in the villain's death or prosecution. But in a romcom, his punishment is totally fitting. We don't expect to see deaths or lengthy court cases in that genre.

So to finally get to the point of this post: the villain themselves must also fit the genre, plot and tone of your movie. The basic movie plot is good versus evil, a hero defeating a threat to their world and their way of life. Sometimes, as in Star Wars, the stakes literally are that big.

But more often, the villain is just a really horrible boss and the world a character's workplace (Working Girl, Office Space, Devil Wears Prada, etc etc). We already know going in that the villain boss isn't going to get killed - more likely fired or demoted. But if we go and see an action flick and the villain is some bland pen pusher, we're going to be pretty disappointed. Like someone once said, James Bond works not because of Bond himself (he's basically a cypher) but because of all the cool villains he's up against. The success of a Bond flick rests largely on how entertaining and evil the bad guys are.

Make your villain fit the kind of story you're writing - and watch your hero become a lot more heroic.

Why your villain must fit your story...

I'm reading the late Blake Syder's wondrous third Save The Cat book (called Save The Cat Strikes Back, naturally). It's probably the best of his books in that it deals with the thorny subject of rewrites. Now, I have no problem writing a draft, but rewrites fill me with dread, so his advice in this one is great. If you're in a complete rewrite hell, Cat 3 will get you out of it.

Now that my unpaid informercial is over... He talks at one point about how a movie character's punishment must fit both their crime and the tone of the film they're in. For instance, in Pretty Woman, Jason Alexander's character tries to assualt Julia Roberts near the end, out of jealousy and because of the (correct) assumption that she has ruined his business deal with Richard Gere. His punishment for this is to be punched by Gere and ostracised professionally by his biggest client. Snyder asks if this is enough. He has just tried to rape someone, right? Shouldn't they have reported him?

Well in the context of this movie and this story, the book concludes that what happens to him represents justice. Okay, in an action movie, Gere and Alexander would have had a big fight and Jason probably would have been thrown to his death out a window or something. In a thriller, there would have been a tense chase scene, resulting in the villain's death or prosecution. But in a romcom, his punishment is totally fitting. We don't expect to see deaths or lengthy court cases in that genre.

So to finally get to the point of this post: the villain themselves must also fit the genre, plot and tone of your movie. The basic movie plot is good versus evil, a hero defeating a threat to their world and their way of life. Sometimes, as in Star Wars, the stakes literally are that big.

But more often, the villain is just a really horrible boss and the world a character's workplace (Working Girl, Office Space, Devil Wears Prada, etc etc). We already know going in that the villain boss isn't going to get killed - more likely fired or demoted. But if we go and see an action flick and the villain is some bland pen pusher, we're going to be pretty disappointed. Like someone once said, James Bond works not because of Bond himself (he's basically a cypher) but because of all the cool villains he's up against. The success of a Bond flick rests largely on how entertaining and evil the bad guys are.

Make your villain fit the kind of story you're writing - and watch your hero become a lot more heroic.

Friday, November 5, 2010

From novel to screen...

I'm currently reading the novel Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan, which inspired the recent movie The Town. So far it's richer and denser than its cinematic version, but there's no doubt that Ben Affleck's screenplay captured the essence of the book.

Then it's on to the original novel Winter's Bone and I previously read Ben Mezrich's infamous opus The Accidental Billionaires, which became The Social Network.

For me, it's fun to read a book that a film is based on because it's interesting to see how the writer overcame (or failed to overcome) the transition from book to screen. For example, Aaron Sorkin had in some respects a real challenge on his hands with Mezrich's book. It's a slight tale which jumps all over the place and has no likeable hero.

However, Sorkin managed to get around this by taking the elements of the book that worked and discarding the ones that didn't. Friends of the real Mark Zuckerberg claim that he is nowhere near as witty or charismatic as the onscreen version (and bear in mind that Sorkin writes him as someone who's quite likely autistic).

But film people are smarter than us, have better one liners and have more dramatic lives - and Sorkin's script manages the feat that Mezrich's book only aims for - making the story of Facebook into a gripping tale of power and betrayal.

Sometimes the novel is better than the film, sometimes a film takes a sow's ear of a book and creates a cinematic silk purse. I think the best cases are where the film compliments the book but creates a stand-alone work of its own.

Also on my mind is the idea of killer premises. You know the way sometimes you hear an idea for a movie and think, "Yes, I'd watch that?" Wrecked, starring Adrien Brody, is just such a film - check out the trailer. I'll be buying a ticket anyway....

From novel to screen...

I'm currently reading the novel Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan, which inspired the recent movie The Town. So far it's richer and denser than its cinematic version, but there's no doubt that Ben Affleck's screenplay captured the essence of the book.

Then it's on to the original novel Winter's Bone and I previously read Ben Mezrich's infamous opus The Accidental Billionaires, which became The Social Network.

For me, it's fun to read a book that a film is based on because it's interesting to see how the writer overcame (or failed to overcome) the transition from book to screen. For example, Aaron Sorkin had in some respects a real challenge on his hands with Mezrich's book. It's a slight tale which jumps all over the place and has no likeable hero.

However, Sorkin managed to get around this by taking the elements of the book that worked and discarding the ones that didn't. Friends of the real Mark Zuckerberg claim that he is nowhere near as witty or charismatic as the onscreen version (and bear in mind that Sorkin writes him as someone who's quite likely autistic).

But film people are smarter than us, have better one liners and have more dramatic lives - and Sorkin's script manages the feat that Mezrich's book only aims for - making the story of Facebook into a gripping tale of power and betrayal.

Sometimes the novel is better than the film, sometimes a film takes a sow's ear of a book and creates a cinematic silk purse. I think the best cases are where the film compliments the book but creates a stand-alone work of its own.

Also on my mind is the idea of killer premises. You know the way sometimes you hear an idea for a movie and think, "Yes, I'd watch that?" Wrecked, starring Adrien Brody, is just such a film - check out the trailer. I'll be buying a ticket anyway....

Monday, November 1, 2010

Is this a movie? Or a transmedia project?

Ah, blog. It's been too long since we last talked.  It's been a mental couple of weeks, but I've survived work/play/house upheaval and now it's back to writing....

I did catch some of this year's Darklight festival. Including the launch party, featuring a band with a lead singer wearing supertight jeggings he was way too old to wear (and playing electro music he was taking far too seriously. Kraftwerk you ain't). 

Much better was the Lance Weiler workshop yesterday morning at Filmbase. Weiler's a very interesting guy, as well as looking super young. He made a little movie called The Last Broadcast back in the Nineties for 900 dollars that went on to gross 5 million dollars and was the first digital cinema release. The movie also at very least inspired The Blair Witch Project (by the sounds of things, it was completely ripped off by the Witch heads). 

Weiler retained the rights to The Last Broadcast despite studio overtures, and later produced the movie Head Trauma. He's currently working on a Lord of the Flies-type movie called Hope is Missing, which is being supported by a variety of other media (iPhone apps where viewers can interact with the world of the film, web films where fans can find clues relating to the movie etc etc). He's a big advocate of transmedia and is always aiming to increase audience participation in his work. 

Here's a quick rundown of his advice:

When writing a script, ask yourself - 
1. What is the story about?
2. What does the story mean to you/
3. Why does the story need to be told?
4. Where is the best place to tell the story (film? webisode? TV? An app?)

To go deeper - 
What is the story I want to tell?
How will I deliver the story?
What kind of audience participation do I need?
How will audience participation affect the story over time?

Weiler's a big fan of story bibles, like the ones used in films like Lord of the Rings, with images, flow documents, character bibles (in other words, all the stuff that doesn't make it into the film but informs it).  

He also mentioned stuff like serialised content, which can be on a separate timeline to the rest of the film or TV show, with different characters. Shows like Heroes and Harper's Island used these techniques in recent years, with supporting webisodes and comic books, but studios are still figuring out how to use the different kinds of media.

He estimates that 75% of viewers are currently passive, while 5% are heavily into audience participation - but reckons that this is due to change. Audiences are going to want more supporting content and more control over what they see in the future (we can see this already in fan fiction, fan sites and even in things like Sky Player). 

The big question, of course, is whether all the social media and other supporting applications will affect the finished film/TV show or enhance it? Weiler thinks it's all about creating more of a back story or extra plot than changing the direction of the main event.

TV shows have always had spin-offs. But now the spin-off might be into a different media type. 

Anyway, here are his six tips for creating a movie world:
1. Take the time to evaluate the story you want to tell.
2. Ask yourself the hard questions: why will anyone care? And is this the best way to tell the story? (should it be a web series rather than a movie?)
3. Let go of a single POV. 
4. Consider how you can show and not tell.
5. Make it easy for your audience to become collaborators.
6. Don't let the world get in the way of your story - it must serve the story!

You can see more of Lance and his work at www.workbookproject.com

Is this a movie? Or a transmedia project?

Ah, blog. It's been too long since we last talked.  It's been a mental couple of weeks, but I've survived work/play/house upheaval and now it's back to writing....

I did catch some of this year's Darklight festival. Including the launch party, featuring a band with a lead singer wearing supertight jeggings he was way too old to wear (and playing electro music he was taking far too seriously. Kraftwerk you ain't). 

Much better was the Lance Weiler workshop yesterday morning at Filmbase. Weiler's a very interesting guy, as well as looking super young. He made a little movie called The Last Broadcast back in the Nineties for 900 dollars that went on to gross 5 million dollars and was the first digital cinema release. The movie also at very least inspired The Blair Witch Project (by the sounds of things, it was completely ripped off by the Witch heads). 

Weiler retained the rights to The Last Broadcast despite studio overtures, and later produced the movie Head Trauma. He's currently working on a Lord of the Flies-type movie called Hope is Missing, which is being supported by a variety of other media (iPhone apps where viewers can interact with the world of the film, web films where fans can find clues relating to the movie etc etc). He's a big advocate of transmedia and is always aiming to increase audience participation in his work. 

Here's a quick rundown of his advice:

When writing a script, ask yourself - 
1. What is the story about?
2. What does the story mean to you/
3. Why does the story need to be told?
4. Where is the best place to tell the story (film? webisode? TV? An app?)

To go deeper - 
What is the story I want to tell?
How will I deliver the story?
What kind of audience participation do I need?
How will audience participation affect the story over time?

Weiler's a big fan of story bibles, like the ones used in films like Lord of the Rings, with images, flow documents, character bibles (in other words, all the stuff that doesn't make it into the film but informs it).  

He also mentioned stuff like serialised content, which can be on a separate timeline to the rest of the film or TV show, with different characters. Shows like Heroes and Harper's Island used these techniques in recent years, with supporting webisodes and comic books, but studios are still figuring out how to use the different kinds of media.

He estimates that 75% of viewers are currently passive, while 5% are heavily into audience participation - but reckons that this is due to change. Audiences are going to want more supporting content and more control over what they see in the future (we can see this already in fan fiction, fan sites and even in things like Sky Player). 

The big question, of course, is whether all the social media and other supporting applications will affect the finished film/TV show or enhance it? Weiler thinks it's all about creating more of a back story or extra plot than changing the direction of the main event.

TV shows have always had spin-offs. But now the spin-off might be into a different media type. 

Anyway, here are his six tips for creating a movie world:
1. Take the time to evaluate the story you want to tell.
2. Ask yourself the hard questions: why will anyone care? And is this the best way to tell the story? (should it be a web series rather than a movie?)
3. Let go of a single POV. 
4. Consider how you can show and not tell.
5. Make it easy for your audience to become collaborators.
6. Don't let the world get in the way of your story - it must serve the story!

You can see more of Lance and his work at www.workbookproject.com

Monday, October 18, 2010

Ass Plus Chair Equals....

Wordplayer is one of those black hole sites, like IMDB. You go on it for ten minutes, end up reading articles for two hours. But it's like doing a masters in screenwriting, for free. 

While stuck in the black hole today, I read this piece on talent versus hard work. Which is more important for a writer? Well, I'm no scientist, unlike the guys in the article. BUT, here's my ten cents.

You can be a supremely talented writer who hardly ever writes anything - and you'll be a supremely talented, unproduced writer. And you can be a not-so talented writer who works your ass off, and maybe actually get something made. In that competition, my money would be on the hard worker. Apart from anything else, writing is something you can get better at through lots of practice.

It's like Malcolm Gladwell says in Outliers: people who excel in a field are those who put in 10,000 hours of work. Would Mozart have been Mozart if he hadn't practiced for 8 hours a day, every day? Put the work in. 

As Oliver Stone's sign above his chair reads, Writing Equals Ass Plus Chair....

Ass Plus Chair Equals....

Wordplayer is one of those black hole sites, like IMDB. You go on it for ten minutes, end up reading articles for two hours. But it's like doing a masters in screenwriting, for free. 

While stuck in the black hole today, I read this piece on talent versus hard work. Which is more important for a writer? Well, I'm no scientist, unlike the guys in the article. BUT, here's my ten cents.

You can be a supremely talented writer who hardly ever writes anything - and you'll be a supremely talented, unproduced writer. And you can be a not-so talented writer who works your ass off, and maybe actually get something made. In that competition, my money would be on the hard worker. Apart from anything else, writing is something you can get better at through lots of practice.

It's like Malcolm Gladwell says in Outliers: people who excel in a field are those who put in 10,000 hours of work. Would Mozart have been Mozart if he hadn't practiced for 8 hours a day, every day? Put the work in. 

As Oliver Stone's sign above his chair reads, Writing Equals Ass Plus Chair....

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

When panic strikes… freak out!

Panic, self-doubt, recrimination – any of these sound familiar? About once a week I have a little panic attack, about something I’m working on, something I’m not working on but should be, or just about my writing in general.

I’m in the middle of a major kitchen and tiling job at home, plus my employer decided that this would be an excellent time to move the office across the city. So I know what the problem is. I don’t have the time, or the head-space, to cope with three scripts that need rewriting, and a new one that keeps waking me up at 4am demanding to be written.

Am I the only writer who’s insane, or do you recognise these symptoms?!

Anyway, I used to panic all the time. It was my middle name. Here’s what I’ve learned to do to cope:

  • Recognise that you are having a brain spasm.
  • Look at what’s going on and identify why you’re freaking out. Do you have no time? Is someone breathing down your neck for a draft? Have you just been fired?
  • If something traumatic/all-consuming is happening, consider parking the writing for a day or two, and fight the fires that need putting out.
  • If you’re stuck and have writer’s block, go for a very long walk.
  • If you have no time, devote half an hour to the script/script problem. This will make you feel like you’re doing something.
  • If someone’s hassling you for a draft, either pull an all-nighter and get it to them, or if you don’t understand what they want, organise a meeting.

And remember, if you’re not panicking at least some of the time, you’re not a writer :)

When panic strikes… freak out!

Panic, self-doubt, recrimination – any of these sound familiar? About once a week I have a little panic attack, about something I’m working on, something I’m not working on but should be, or just about my writing in general.

I’m in the middle of a major kitchen and tiling job at home, plus my employer decided that this would be an excellent time to move the office across the city. So I know what the problem is. I don’t have the time, or the head-space, to cope with three scripts that need rewriting, and a new one that keeps waking me up at 4am demanding to be written.

Am I the only writer who’s insane, or do you recognise these symptoms?!

Anyway, I used to panic all the time. It was my middle name. Here’s what I’ve learned to do to cope:

  • Recognise that you are having a brain spasm.
  • Look at what’s going on and identify why you’re freaking out. Do you have no time? Is someone breathing down your neck for a draft? Have you just been fired?
  • If something traumatic/all-consuming is happening, consider parking the writing for a day or two, and fight the fires that need putting out.
  • If you’re stuck and have writer’s block, go for a very long walk.
  • If you have no time, devote half an hour to the script/script problem. This will make you feel like you’re doing something.
  • If someone’s hassling you for a draft, either pull an all-nighter and get it to them, or if you don’t understand what they want, organise a meeting.

And remember, if you’re not panicking at least some of the time, you’re not a writer :)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Straight from the headlines... writing from reality

Coming up with ideas: this seems to be something that plagues some writers. I have the opposite problem - deciding what ideas are good enough to write based on the limited time I have. But I'm not operating from divine inspiration: I just read a lot of news sites.

Whether you get your news from the TV, the web or good old-fashioned newspapers, there are great stories in there. Crazier stuff happens in real life than any writer can come up with.

I read a story last year about a guy who was banned from dancing at his ultra-religious U.S. school, so broke the rules by going to his girlfriend's prom instead. He got suspended. Isn't that the stuff of teenage dance movies?

There was the story of an ordinary woman in Kentucky who solved a local girl's murder and brought a gang of killers to justice. Erin Brockovich 2 - the heroine found love and went on to  become a private detective.

Or this one: the story of two Dublin kids who ran away from home in 1985 and somehow found their way to the U.K., then to Heathrow, then to New York. A feelgood family comedy right there in the Times.

Roger Corman does it, so it can't be bad. Read the news - and make sure your plots really are stranger than fiction.

Straight from the headlines... writing from reality

Coming up with ideas: this seems to be something that plagues some writers. I have the opposite problem - deciding what ideas are good enough to write based on the limited time I have. But I'm not operating from divine inspiration: I just read a lot of news sites.

Whether you get your news from the TV, the web or good old-fashioned newspapers, there are great stories in there. Crazier stuff happens in real life than any writer can come up with.

I read a story last year about a guy who was banned from dancing at his ultra-religious U.S. school, so broke the rules by going to his girlfriend's prom instead. He got suspended. Isn't that the stuff of teenage dance movies?

There was the story of an ordinary woman in Kentucky who solved a local girl's murder and brought a gang of killers to justice. Erin Brockovich 2 - the heroine found love and went on to  become a private detective.

Or this one: the story of two Dublin kids who ran away from home in 1985 and somehow found their way to the U.K., then to Heathrow, then to New York. A feelgood family comedy right there in the Times.

Roger Corman does it, so it can't be bad. Read the news - and make sure your plots really are stranger than fiction.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Can you do horror with little ‘ol cartoons?

I was talking to an animator a few weeks ago who expressed the opinion that you can’t do horror with animation.

This, he said, was because you can’t get as emotionally involved with animated characters as you can with live action ones. So if some animated chick’s getting chased by a knife-wielding maniac, you won’t be as on the edge of your seat as you’d be if he was chasing some blonde actress. (Depends on how annoying the actress is if you ask me!).

I don’t know. Sure, the stepmother from Disney’s Snow White still freaks me out when she changes into the witch. I think this is something fairly primal. Yes, The Black Cauldron with the Horned King and his skeleton army is the most inappropriate children’s cartoon ever (the nightmares!). But these are animated movies with some horrifying bits. Could you do a straight up horror movie in animation?

A few years ago, I’d probably have agreed with the cartoonist. But what about Waltz With Bashir? That’s pretty horrifying. And movies like Up and Wall:E have shown an ability to evoke an emotional response that I never thought I’d see from a cartoon. Not to mention all the bad-ass manga horrors out there.

Are we heading for the first mainstream animated horror? Or is the disconnect from animated characters just too big to bridge? Opinions on a postcard…

Can you do horror with little ‘ol cartoons?

I was talking to an animator a few weeks ago who expressed the opinion that you can’t do horror with animation.

This, he said, was because you can’t get as emotionally involved with animated characters as you can with live action ones. So if some animated chick’s getting chased by a knife-wielding maniac, you won’t be as on the edge of your seat as you’d be if he was chasing some blonde actress. (Depends on how annoying the actress is if you ask me!).

I don’t know. Sure, the stepmother from Disney’s Snow White still freaks me out when she changes into the witch. I think this is something fairly primal. Yes, The Black Cauldron with the Horned King and his skeleton army is the most inappropriate children’s cartoon ever (the nightmares!). But these are animated movies with some horrifying bits. Could you do a straight up horror movie in animation?

A few years ago, I’d probably have agreed with the cartoonist. But what about Waltz With Bashir? That’s pretty horrifying. And movies like Up and Wall:E have shown an ability to evoke an emotional response that I never thought I’d see from a cartoon. Not to mention all the bad-ass manga horrors out there.

Are we heading for the first mainstream animated horror? Or is the disconnect from animated characters just too big to bridge? Opinions on a postcard…

Friday, October 1, 2010

Working with the Frank Daniel Method

I was lucky enough to get to a Screen Training Ireland/Screen Producers Ireland course recently with writer and script consultant Martin Daniel. He’s the son of Frank Daniel, who developed the Daniel method (involves asking questions about a script to uncover the stuff within it).

Milos Forman, among others, uses this methodology for working on scripts and it’s equally useful for producers or writers.

Here’s some of the stuff I learned (a lot of this is common sense but insightful all the same):

  • Involve the audience in a feeling of tension. Make them active participants, involved in creating the story. Have them anticipating, projecting ahead, imagining all the possible outcomes.
  • A common-sense approach to story: do I believe it, understand it and care about it?
  • Whose story is it?
  • Who is driving the story?
  • What does the main character want? This has to be very specific. Not just “love”, but an embodiment of love for that character that the audience can latch onto.
  • Good antagonists are people whose drives we recognise in ourselves.
  • What does the main character need? Often they get what they want, not what they need.
  • Theme: people often try and pin down the writer early on and ask, “What’s the story really about?” And the writer doesn’t know! But you’re exploring what the theme is by writing the script. The process of writing it is what eventually reveals the theme.
  • Audience question: what are we hoping for and what are we afraid of? These feelings inform almost all of our encounters. You can use these questions for a script and for any scene within a script.
  • Sequences: must have a tension of their own within the overall tension of the story. Always think of how the audience is experiencing this in terms of tension. In most films, there are 8 or 9 sequences in total.
  • Key shaping tools: the “whose story is it?” question can help. Also: “who knows what about whom, and when do they know it?” Revelation and recognition: the revelation (to the audience) that Oedipus is sleeping with his mother, for instance.
  • Structure: we should meet a character in their ordinary life. Then their routine is disturbed and they are faced with a journey. Act 2, they embark on the journey after some discussion. Act 3, the reason they went on the journey may have changed. Will they succeed or not?
  • The context (set up by the view of their routine life) is what makes us want to watch a character. The specifics of character, place etc. Specifics versus general: a general human life is boring. It’s the individual human experience that makes it interesting.
  • Rewriting - write a one-page summary of the script. The problems will become evident.
  • What really happens in this script? Unravel the various strands and you will see what isn’t developed enough. Maybe the main story, maybe the B or C stories.
  • Step outlines – look at them on three levels. Does the scene feel like it can engage the audience? Does it reveal the characters, show us something new? Does it move the story forward?
  • Keep asking what the characters want and follow that all the way through. By Act 2, the main character should have only one option left (i.e. there should be no alternatives open to them). Remove the alternatives and start adding in obstacles!


Working with the Frank Daniel Method

I was lucky enough to get to a Screen Training Ireland/Screen Producers Ireland course recently with writer and script consultant Martin Daniel. He’s the son of Frank Daniel, who developed the Daniel method (involves asking questions about a script to uncover the stuff within it).

Milos Forman, among others, uses this methodology for working on scripts and it’s equally useful for producers or writers.

Here’s some of the stuff I learned (a lot of this is common sense but insightful all the same):

  • Involve the audience in a feeling of tension. Make them active participants, involved in creating the story. Have them anticipating, projecting ahead, imagining all the possible outcomes.
  • A common-sense approach to story: do I believe it, understand it and care about it?
  • Whose story is it?
  • Who is driving the story?
  • What does the main character want? This has to be very specific. Not just “love”, but an embodiment of love for that character that the audience can latch onto.
  • Good antagonists are people whose drives we recognise in ourselves.
  • What does the main character need? Often they get what they want, not what they need.
  • Theme: people often try and pin down the writer early on and ask, “What’s the story really about?” And the writer doesn’t know! But you’re exploring what the theme is by writing the script. The process of writing it is what eventually reveals the theme.
  • Audience question: what are we hoping for and what are we afraid of? These feelings inform almost all of our encounters. You can use these questions for a script and for any scene within a script.
  • Sequences: must have a tension of their own within the overall tension of the story. Always think of how the audience is experiencing this in terms of tension. In most films, there are 8 or 9 sequences in total.
  • Key shaping tools: the “whose story is it?” question can help. Also: “who knows what about whom, and when do they know it?” Revelation and recognition: the revelation (to the audience) that Oedipus is sleeping with his mother, for instance.
  • Structure: we should meet a character in their ordinary life. Then their routine is disturbed and they are faced with a journey. Act 2, they embark on the journey after some discussion. Act 3, the reason they went on the journey may have changed. Will they succeed or not?
  • The context (set up by the view of their routine life) is what makes us want to watch a character. The specifics of character, place etc. Specifics versus general: a general human life is boring. It’s the individual human experience that makes it interesting.
  • Rewriting - write a one-page summary of the script. The problems will become evident.
  • What really happens in this script? Unravel the various strands and you will see what isn’t developed enough. Maybe the main story, maybe the B or C stories.
  • Step outlines – look at them on three levels. Does the scene feel like it can engage the audience? Does it reveal the characters, show us something new? Does it move the story forward?
  • Keep asking what the characters want and follow that all the way through. By Act 2, the main character should have only one option left (i.e. there should be no alternatives open to them). Remove the alternatives and start adding in obstacles!


Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Cut it! Then cut some more!

I recently did a big rewrite on a script. It was for a deadline, which concentrates the mind – and led to several all-nighters working on it.

By the end, the script was 20 PAGES shorter. Yes, I’d fixed the awful dialogue, strengthened the characterisations (hopefully), all that stuff. But the biggest thing I did was prune things out.

Here’s what I took out (btw, the best thing about removing the crap is that you can add in more good stuff!)

· Dialogue – some not needed at all. If there’s any way of saying it without using dialogue, do that. But I also cut it down. Sometimes a character says two sentences where they only need to say one.
· “Like, So” - People will also sometimes say conversational stuff in my scripts like, well, “like”. It’s useless - take it out! This has a nice, punchy impact on your dialogue. Remember, movie characters are much more articulate than us.
· Description – this is one of my biggest screenwriting sins. I write paragraphs of description, most of it redundant. I pruned this right down.
· “Is doing” syndrome – I’m always doing this. We open on Jake walking down a street. No we don’t! Jakes walks down a street. That’s it.
· Repetition – if anyone mentions an important detail anywhere in the script, that detail should not come up again. We got it the first time. I’m a terror for this sin too.

You may find, after doing this, that the script’s a lot shorter. Maybe too short. But that’s the true length without all the rubbish in it.

Now you can go in and develop your characters, expand the plot slightly and overall construct a much better script. Best of luck!

Cut it! Then cut some more!

I recently did a big rewrite on a script. It was for a deadline, which concentrates the mind – and led to several all-nighters working on it.

By the end, the script was 20 PAGES shorter. Yes, I’d fixed the awful dialogue, strengthened the characterisations (hopefully), all that stuff. But the biggest thing I did was prune things out.

Here’s what I took out (btw, the best thing about removing the crap is that you can add in more good stuff!)

· Dialogue – some not needed at all. If there’s any way of saying it without using dialogue, do that. But I also cut it down. Sometimes a character says two sentences where they only need to say one.
· “Like, So” - People will also sometimes say conversational stuff in my scripts like, well, “like”. It’s useless - take it out! This has a nice, punchy impact on your dialogue. Remember, movie characters are much more articulate than us.
· Description – this is one of my biggest screenwriting sins. I write paragraphs of description, most of it redundant. I pruned this right down.
· “Is doing” syndrome – I’m always doing this. We open on Jake walking down a street. No we don’t! Jakes walks down a street. That’s it.
· Repetition – if anyone mentions an important detail anywhere in the script, that detail should not come up again. We got it the first time. I’m a terror for this sin too.

You may find, after doing this, that the script’s a lot shorter. Maybe too short. But that’s the true length without all the rubbish in it.

Now you can go in and develop your characters, expand the plot slightly and overall construct a much better script. Best of luck!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Elliott Grove on selling screenplays, Roger Corman-style!

I went to a talk last night at Filmbase by the founder of the Raindance film festival and the British Independent Film Awards, Elliott Grove.

Grove, a Canadian with a Jeff Goldblum thing going on (I think it was the black suit and sunglasses – indoors) once made a movie called Table 5 for £200. He’s passionate about making movies on low budgets and his festival aims to bring as many as possible to audiences. He also runs training courses for filmmakers – some of his alumni include Guy Ritchie and Christopher Nolan.

Grove grew up in an Amish farming community near Toronto and didn’t see his first film until he was 16. He had been told that the Devil lived in the movie theatre, so when he went in and saw the tiered seating (like a church!) and the red velvet seats, he figured this was true! Then the movie turned out to be Lassie Come Home….

Farmers look for patterns in things – this is something that’s stayed with him.

Reading friends’ screenplays – he saw the same patterns of mistakes in every one! He read 50 screenplays from the BFI library and says he learned more from this than anything else.

Grove has a touch of a snake-oil salesman thing about him – he certainly had no qualms about flogging his books and DVDs. But I liked the guy and some of what he said was really interesting.

His top ten maxims (I’m paraphrasing a lot of this):
1. Entertainment – it’s an industry. Not an artists colony.
2. Commerce - it’s a collaborative business, something a lot of writers try to ignore. Your job is to inspire the director, the actor and the editor, and then back off.
3. Reality – stories are crafted by the writer. Take reality and enhance it in the interests of your story. People pay to see something more than reality at the movies.
4. Peeping Tom – humans are transfixed by other humans’ misfortunes. We are the only species that does so! So capitalise on that in your scripts!
5. Maximise – make good use of every word in your script. But don’t overwrite.
6. Discipline – people will do anything to avoid writing. Household chores, watching TV. Be disciplined and use your time well!
7. Hollywood – Grove loves Hollywood films and doesn’t apologise for it. Movies take you to a new world, or bring you to somewhere new in your own world.
8. Audience – the audience for a screenwriter is a reader, preferably someone with a big chequebook or someone who can connect you to someone with one.
9. Misfortune – it will befall you. Your script will be directed by an awful director, or they’ll hire the wrong actor, or it will tank at the box office. Move on and don’t take it personally.
10. Sex and violence – there should be violence on every page of your script. But not just physical violence. Sociological or psychological violence works just as well.

Social setting for scripts – this is important because it encompasses what your character can or cannot do - their limits. There are 4 social settings, according to Grove:

Wilderness – typically where a male travels alone, in a wilderness like a jungle, desert, forest etc. He may have sidekicks or companions – this is mainly because he’s the best source of protection for them from external dangers or threats. The wilderness hero will usually achieve some sort of enlightenment and bring this knowledge back to other people – like Moses and the Ten Commandments for example. All great religious stories take place in the wilderness.

Village – A town where you can stand at one end and see the other. All the buildings look the same, no one lives in a nicer house than anyone else. There’s always a leader (sheriff, mayor etc.). The villagers usually face threats from external sources of one form or another. In village stories – or comedies – the hero doesn’t have to change by the end of the film. But THEY change the villagers’ lives forever. The Seven Samurai and Red Rock West are example of village stories.

City – Now we’re going up in the civilisation stakes. Some people live in great houses, some live in crappy apartments. There is far less social interaction – people don’t know each other as well. In city stories, a character usually fights to right an injustice of some sort (Erin Brockovich/City Hall).

Oppressive City – The rules have changed. Stuff you used to be able to do is now banned and things have gone a bit dystopian. The hero is an antihero who just wants to get on with their day but instead is forced to get involved in a struggle against the prevailing order. 28 Days Later, Children of Men and Shaun of the Dead are example of oppressive city settings, but thrillers also fall into this category – Minority Report and Blade Runner.

Most of our stories are now city-based. You can flip it around – Crocodile Dundee did this, as did City Slickers.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – at the start they’re in the village, successfully robbing banks and staying one step ahead of the soldiers who are searching for them. But then the railroad comes – the city encroaching on them. Now the soldiers are one step ahead of them all the time. They’re being hunted by the next social stage – and they can’t adapt to this change! “Who are these guys??, they cry at various points for the rest of the movie.

So what stage are we at now? Grove reckons oppressive city. Was 911 a first attack from the barbarians (I think he was going all ancient Rome here)? Is Big Brother our version of gladiators? (Um, yes – but I wish they’d bring in lions).

Ideas for movies – Roger Corman apparently starts his day by reading the newspaper headlines for ideas for movies. Some years ago, he saw an article about NASA discovering water on Mars. He immediately released a press release saying that his new movie was going to be about Mars.

This led to news teams sitting outside his office and a bigwig from Warner Bros calling him to discuss “the Mars movie”. The Warners man said he was on his way over. Corman judged that it would take him about thirty minutes, and proceeded to sit down and write a single paragraph – which he sold to Warners for a ridiculously large sum. That movie was Mars Attacks!

Corman’s sales technique is apparently to get a graphic designer to come up with a glossy “one-sheet” with images and the title/logline on the front and a paragraph description on the back (sort of like a DVD cover). Then he uses this to gauge interest with buyers. If they hate it/are disinterested, he bins the idea. If they love it, he hires a screenwriter and makes the movie!

Grove reckons screenwriters should do the same – do a one sheet, see if producers etc. like it, then write the script. I’m torn on this one. It makes twisted sense, but you’d have to be one efficient writing machine to pull it off! Not to mention the madness involved in essentially writing to order. I guess it might be worth doing if you had several ideas and wanted to know which one to write?

Pitching – writers hate it. Grove reckons you should start by asking, “What if…”? Draw comparisons to stuff people know. Bring them in by painting a picture for them.

Budget – don’t let it rule you but bear it in mind. Moving locations costs money. Write something with 2-3 locations and cut between them instead.

He told us about a friend of his who wrote a low budget (300k) horror movie and put it out on video on demand in the States. He made the money back plus a small profit in a week. His secret lay in choosing a title starting with “D”. The VOD screen shows titles A-D, then you have to press a button to get to E-G and so on. Most people are lazy and pick something off the first screen!

TV, web streaming companies, gaming corporations, mobile platforms – all looking for content. This represents a huge opportunity for writers.

Grove’s golden rules:
1. Sit down and write. Even for only 15-20 minutes, but do it EVERY day. Yes, you’ll work 12-15 hours if you’re on deadline, but most days 20 minutes is better than nothing at all. If you don’t write every day, you’re not really a writer.
2. It’s not about quality, it’s about quantity with the first draft. Get it down, then fix it!
3. You need to learn to reject rejection. It’s a depressing business at times, but 500 new members were admitted into the WGA last year. The only way they could have done this was by getting something made. So there is hope!

Check out http://www.raindance.org/ for more info on the festival, which takes place next week in London.

Elliott Grove on selling screenplays, Roger Corman-style!

I went to a talk last night at Filmbase by the founder of the Raindance film festival and the British Independent Film Awards, Elliott Grove.

Grove, a Canadian with a Jeff Goldblum thing going on (I think it was the black suit and sunglasses – indoors) once made a movie called Table 5 for £200. He’s passionate about making movies on low budgets and his festival aims to bring as many as possible to audiences. He also runs training courses for filmmakers – some of his alumni include Guy Ritchie and Christopher Nolan.

Grove grew up in an Amish farming community near Toronto and didn’t see his first film until he was 16. He had been told that the Devil lived in the movie theatre, so when he went in and saw the tiered seating (like a church!) and the red velvet seats, he figured this was true! Then the movie turned out to be Lassie Come Home….

Farmers look for patterns in things – this is something that’s stayed with him.

Reading friends’ screenplays – he saw the same patterns of mistakes in every one! He read 50 screenplays from the BFI library and says he learned more from this than anything else.

Grove has a touch of a snake-oil salesman thing about him – he certainly had no qualms about flogging his books and DVDs. But I liked the guy and some of what he said was really interesting.

His top ten maxims (I’m paraphrasing a lot of this):
1. Entertainment – it’s an industry. Not an artists colony.
2. Commerce - it’s a collaborative business, something a lot of writers try to ignore. Your job is to inspire the director, the actor and the editor, and then back off.
3. Reality – stories are crafted by the writer. Take reality and enhance it in the interests of your story. People pay to see something more than reality at the movies.
4. Peeping Tom – humans are transfixed by other humans’ misfortunes. We are the only species that does so! So capitalise on that in your scripts!
5. Maximise – make good use of every word in your script. But don’t overwrite.
6. Discipline – people will do anything to avoid writing. Household chores, watching TV. Be disciplined and use your time well!
7. Hollywood – Grove loves Hollywood films and doesn’t apologise for it. Movies take you to a new world, or bring you to somewhere new in your own world.
8. Audience – the audience for a screenwriter is a reader, preferably someone with a big chequebook or someone who can connect you to someone with one.
9. Misfortune – it will befall you. Your script will be directed by an awful director, or they’ll hire the wrong actor, or it will tank at the box office. Move on and don’t take it personally.
10. Sex and violence – there should be violence on every page of your script. But not just physical violence. Sociological or psychological violence works just as well.

Social setting for scripts – this is important because it encompasses what your character can or cannot do - their limits. There are 4 social settings, according to Grove:

Wilderness – typically where a male travels alone, in a wilderness like a jungle, desert, forest etc. He may have sidekicks or companions – this is mainly because he’s the best source of protection for them from external dangers or threats. The wilderness hero will usually achieve some sort of enlightenment and bring this knowledge back to other people – like Moses and the Ten Commandments for example. All great religious stories take place in the wilderness.

Village – A town where you can stand at one end and see the other. All the buildings look the same, no one lives in a nicer house than anyone else. There’s always a leader (sheriff, mayor etc.). The villagers usually face threats from external sources of one form or another. In village stories – or comedies – the hero doesn’t have to change by the end of the film. But THEY change the villagers’ lives forever. The Seven Samurai and Red Rock West are example of village stories.

City – Now we’re going up in the civilisation stakes. Some people live in great houses, some live in crappy apartments. There is far less social interaction – people don’t know each other as well. In city stories, a character usually fights to right an injustice of some sort (Erin Brockovich/City Hall).

Oppressive City – The rules have changed. Stuff you used to be able to do is now banned and things have gone a bit dystopian. The hero is an antihero who just wants to get on with their day but instead is forced to get involved in a struggle against the prevailing order. 28 Days Later, Children of Men and Shaun of the Dead are example of oppressive city settings, but thrillers also fall into this category – Minority Report and Blade Runner.

Most of our stories are now city-based. You can flip it around – Crocodile Dundee did this, as did City Slickers.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – at the start they’re in the village, successfully robbing banks and staying one step ahead of the soldiers who are searching for them. But then the railroad comes – the city encroaching on them. Now the soldiers are one step ahead of them all the time. They’re being hunted by the next social stage – and they can’t adapt to this change! “Who are these guys??, they cry at various points for the rest of the movie.

So what stage are we at now? Grove reckons oppressive city. Was 911 a first attack from the barbarians (I think he was going all ancient Rome here)? Is Big Brother our version of gladiators? (Um, yes – but I wish they’d bring in lions).

Ideas for movies – Roger Corman apparently starts his day by reading the newspaper headlines for ideas for movies. Some years ago, he saw an article about NASA discovering water on Mars. He immediately released a press release saying that his new movie was going to be about Mars.

This led to news teams sitting outside his office and a bigwig from Warner Bros calling him to discuss “the Mars movie”. The Warners man said he was on his way over. Corman judged that it would take him about thirty minutes, and proceeded to sit down and write a single paragraph – which he sold to Warners for a ridiculously large sum. That movie was Mars Attacks!

Corman’s sales technique is apparently to get a graphic designer to come up with a glossy “one-sheet” with images and the title/logline on the front and a paragraph description on the back (sort of like a DVD cover). Then he uses this to gauge interest with buyers. If they hate it/are disinterested, he bins the idea. If they love it, he hires a screenwriter and makes the movie!

Grove reckons screenwriters should do the same – do a one sheet, see if producers etc. like it, then write the script. I’m torn on this one. It makes twisted sense, but you’d have to be one efficient writing machine to pull it off! Not to mention the madness involved in essentially writing to order. I guess it might be worth doing if you had several ideas and wanted to know which one to write?

Pitching – writers hate it. Grove reckons you should start by asking, “What if…”? Draw comparisons to stuff people know. Bring them in by painting a picture for them.

Budget – don’t let it rule you but bear it in mind. Moving locations costs money. Write something with 2-3 locations and cut between them instead.

He told us about a friend of his who wrote a low budget (300k) horror movie and put it out on video on demand in the States. He made the money back plus a small profit in a week. His secret lay in choosing a title starting with “D”. The VOD screen shows titles A-D, then you have to press a button to get to E-G and so on. Most people are lazy and pick something off the first screen!

TV, web streaming companies, gaming corporations, mobile platforms – all looking for content. This represents a huge opportunity for writers.

Grove’s golden rules:
1. Sit down and write. Even for only 15-20 minutes, but do it EVERY day. Yes, you’ll work 12-15 hours if you’re on deadline, but most days 20 minutes is better than nothing at all. If you don’t write every day, you’re not really a writer.
2. It’s not about quality, it’s about quantity with the first draft. Get it down, then fix it!
3. You need to learn to reject rejection. It’s a depressing business at times, but 500 new members were admitted into the WGA last year. The only way they could have done this was by getting something made. So there is hope!

Check out http://www.raindance.org/ for more info on the festival, which takes place next week in London.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Writing Great Reversals

Reversals, of course, being the little things that make a script hum. Instead of things happening in a dull, expected fashion, the script keeps the audience guessing, on the edge of their seats.

Now, we all know William Goldman writes great scripts. If I’d written even ONE of All the President’s Men, The Princess Bride or Butch Cassidy to name but a few, I’d consider myself lucky. To be honest, if I’d just written Adventures in the Screen Trade, I’d be happy!

He has a great section in Adventures where he talks about reversals. He was writing a spy caper at one stage and there was a scene where the hero was locked in a cage by some circus people (sidekicks of the bad guy), beside another cage containing a huge vulture. The villains stupidly left a set of keys on the table right beside his cage. We’ve seen this kind of scene, right? With some small effort, the hero gets the keys and effects an escape.

What actually happened in Goldman’s script was this: the hero couldn’t reach the keys. But there were some small pieces of twig at the bottom of the vulture’s cage. So our man sticks his hand in, nearly getting it pecked off by the bird, and gets a twig. Still can’t reach the keys. He tries again, gets his knuckles savaged, and grabs a longer twig. STILL no joy, the keys are just too far away.

He painstakingly constructs a tool using the two twigs and with a huge effort is able to finally grab the keys…

Which are the wrong ones.

This is my current aim: come up with a reversal even a quarter as good as that. Keep the surprises coming!

Writing Great Reversals

Reversals, of course, being the little things that make a script hum. Instead of things happening in a dull, expected fashion, the script keeps the audience guessing, on the edge of their seats.

Now, we all know William Goldman writes great scripts. If I’d written even ONE of All the President’s Men, The Princess Bride or Butch Cassidy to name but a few, I’d consider myself lucky. To be honest, if I’d just written Adventures in the Screen Trade, I’d be happy!

He has a great section in Adventures where he talks about reversals. He was writing a spy caper at one stage and there was a scene where the hero was locked in a cage by some circus people (sidekicks of the bad guy), beside another cage containing a huge vulture. The villains stupidly left a set of keys on the table right beside his cage. We’ve seen this kind of scene, right? With some small effort, the hero gets the keys and effects an escape.

What actually happened in Goldman’s script was this: the hero couldn’t reach the keys. But there were some small pieces of twig at the bottom of the vulture’s cage. So our man sticks his hand in, nearly getting it pecked off by the bird, and gets a twig. Still can’t reach the keys. He tries again, gets his knuckles savaged, and grabs a longer twig. STILL no joy, the keys are just too far away.

He painstakingly constructs a tool using the two twigs and with a huge effort is able to finally grab the keys…

Which are the wrong ones.

This is my current aim: come up with a reversal even a quarter as good as that. Keep the surprises coming!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Learning from a stinker: Fool's Gold

As well as reading scripts, you can learn a lot by watching movies and deconstructing them. I read recently that Sly Stallone used to work in a cinema as an usher and watch some films like MASH over and over again, breaking them down to see what worked. You might be going, “Stallone?” Well he got an Oscar nom for the Rocky script…

But I often find that it’s just as important to watch misfiring films as it is to see successful ones. Why didn’t they work, and what lessons can we learn from ‘em?

Case in point: Fool’s Gold, which was on the telly recently. Most people seem to think that this film misfired mainly because Matthew McConaughey spends the entire time half-naked. I don’t see a thing wrong with this J

No, the problem is actually to do with lack of stakes. Lots of stuff happens in this film – people go here, spout exposition, go there, there’s a diving montage and a bit of comedy with Donald Sutherland’s bimbo rich-girl daughter. But none of it means much, cos there is nothing really at stake! Sure, Matthew might be about to lose Kate Hudson forever. But she’s already divorcing him, (not that this is remotely convincing). Donald Sutherland, who’s possibly the best boss ever, agrees to fund their treasure trip with his millions. No danger there.

Ray Winstone pops up as Matthew’s old boss, but all he does is yell a lot and threaten him a few times. Big whoop! The main baddie is a rapper called Big Bunny D. Apart from the fact that I can’t really get fearful of a rapper, especially one with such a silly name, it’s hard to see why anyone would be afraid of him. We’re TOLD that Big Bunny shot someone and killed all the witnesses, but we don’t see him do anything bad, apart from murdering hiphop lingo and rocking an awful white suit. It would have been much better if he’d been shown knocking off some other treasure-hunter (or one of his own guys who’d double-crossed him) by throwing them into his personal shark tank, something like that. NOW that would be bad!

Overall, the whole film is just too cheerful and lacking in any tension. The result is that it lacks an emotional punch and the plot goes along in a straight line instead of building to a satisfying conclusion.

So the lesson from the Barbados Tourist Board video that is Fool’s Gold: raise the stakes or watch your move sink without trace…